How to pick, plant tomato plants in the High Desert

  • (Western Communications file photo)

Is a tomato a fruit or vegetable? You might be able to win a local trivia contest with the correct answer.

Tomatoes are technically a fruit. The ripened ovary of a seed plant and its contents are contained within the flesh of the fruit.

When your first tomato of the season arrives, you could say to your neighbor: nice fruit, eh? Course your neighbor will think you’re a bit daft, but then he already knew that because you are trying to grow tomatoes in Central Oregon.

When you are out tomato plant shopping, knowing some of the tomato plant terminology will help you make a decision. It is too late to start from seed, but not too late to make purchases from your favorite nursery even though we have passed what many consider the magical planting date of Memorial Day. In Central Oregon the recommended planting is the second week of June. Be aware of the possibility of frost and have frost protection in place.

Words like indeterminate, determinate, hybrid, open-pollinated or heirloom will give you a clue as to what you should expect.

Indeterminate will refer to the growth habit as a climbing plant. It will be easier to care for and to harvest if it’s staked rather than grown in a tomato cage. The fruit ripens over a long period of time. Cherry types are a good example.

Determinate growth usually refers to bush types that are grown in tomato cages for easier care and harvesting. The fruit ripens within a concentrated period of time.

Tomato plants left to sprawl on the ground are more susceptible to fungus and disease.

If you are interested in saving seed from your tomato crop, you need to know if your variety is an open-pollinated variety or a hybrid variety. That information may be offered on the plant tag, in a seed catalog — or Google the variety.

A hybrid is usually identified using the letter F and a number (F1, for example). The hybrid is a cross between 2 varieties to enhance a particular trait. Saved seeds from that variety may revert to one of the parent plants.

Open-pollinated plants are identified on the tag or in a catalog as OP, and can be saved.

Not a multitasking plant

When buying a tomato plant, the natural instinct is to look for the biggest plant with blossoms or maybe even a tiny tomato forming. Do not use that as a criteria. In classes I have taught over many years, I reinforce the fact that a tomato plant is not a multitasker, unlike its purchaser.

Any blossoms or forming tomatoes need to be pinched out. The plant does not have enough energy to settle its roots into a new and different soil composition, plus continue developing the blossom or ripening a set tomato all at the same time. It is more important that the energy goes into the root system settling in and then progress will move forward as it should.

Planting tomato starts

For those new to tomato culture, it may come as a shock to know that your plant should be planted to a depth of the first leaves. Tomatoes have the ability to develop roots all along the buried stem which effectively increases the size of the roots system and increases plant growth.

If your plants are tall (leggy), rather than dig a hole as deep as the hardpan, dig a horizontal trench and lay the plant sideways, gently bending it upward (usually about a 30-degree angle) leaving only the top 5 or 6 inches of the plant exposed. Doing so has another advantage in our climate. The roots are closer to the surface and will be warmer than the roots of a deeply dug plant.

For more information:

Read Grow Your Own Tomatoes and Tomatillos at catalog.extension.oregon

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